Strategic military alliances are more critical today
With the current international security architecture in steep decline, and the threat of conventional regional wars between competing great and regional powers appearing increasingly likely and dangerous, it is incumbent upon the U.S. to quickly shore up its strategic military alliances – specifically in the Americas, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Southwest Asia. and the Pacific.
The bi-polarity that dominated the Cold War era (1946-1991), and restrained violence between nuclear-armed military alliances led by the United States and Soviet Union superpowers, has ended. The resulting system of order and power distribution has increasingly moved to a multi-polar world where the potential for violent conflict has increased to a concerning level. The Post-Cold War era has seen limited war including; the Yugoslav Wars (1990-2001), First Gulf War (1991), Second Gulf War (2003), Russo-Georgian War (2008), North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Libyan Intervention (2011), and the Russo-Ukraine War (2014). As well, we have witnessed serious civil wars that threaten regional security in the flashpoint of the Middle East including the Syrian Civil War (2011-Present), Iraqi Civil War (2014-2017), and Yemen Civil War (2015-Present).
Recent security-related events have demonstrated an enhanced ability, interest, and willingness by rogue states (such as Iran and North Korea) and great powers (such as China and Russia) to use force to maximize their interests at the expense of their neighbours.
The Trump Administration approach – taking its allies for granted, seemingly throwing them over board or threatening to do so when the relationship gets tough on issues such as burden sharing, or its perceived cozying up to strategic rivals like Russia and regional rogues like North Korea – has sent mixed messages to all players and left crucial strategic allies guessing what will come next.
The President’s increasing hardline with Iran and the trade war with China, along with pushing back on Beijing in the South China Sea has not gone unnoticed. In a world where ‘balance of power’ is likely the game of the day, and strategic alliances are crucial to survival, the bond of the NATO alliance for instance or the United States’ alliance with Japan are invaluable and must be safe guarded at all costs.
The perceived security guarantee of the “mutually assured destruction” nuclear deterrent (and the protection it offers vulnerable allies) must be rock-solid – keeping key allies in the tent and valuing that security over other options. As the global security situation seems in decline, and America finds strategic challenges on several fronts at the same time, the Trump Administration would do well to avoid the view that it can withdraw to American shores or go it alone unilaterally.
A quick review of great powers, rogue and non-status quo states and flashpoints, illustrates in sinister scenarios that the United States needs its allies, and needs them now.
For example, Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin continues to modernize its military forces, bully its neighbours, and has stepped up efforts to absorb now-independent Belarus into the Russian state. The merger of Russia and Belarus, and their military forces and strategic basing, could pose dramatic security concerns for the Baltic States, Poland, Ukraine and NATO. Most worrying is what increasingly looks like a deployment of Russian mobile forces to landlock Ukraine in the South and surround its territory with the goal of annexing territory up to the Dnieper River – effectively ending the independence of this vulnerable state.
Noteably, Turkey’s apparent flirtation with Russia, at the expense of its NATO allies and European interests, has become a ‘wild card’ in European Security and NATO’s southern flank, as well as United States’ and Israeli interests in the Middle East in terms of Syria, Iraq, and Iran.
We are only a month or so away from Russia’s annual mammoth ‘Zapad’ war games. Usually held in the fall, they bring a chill to NATO’s Baltic States, Poland and Ukraine. Russia’s ‘active measures’ campaigns against Central European states and other Western democracies cannot be ignored in an age of hybrid warfare.
As well, tensions continue to increase between the United States and the United Kingdom and Iran in and around the Persian Gulf in relation to Tehran’s interventions in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen and its nuclear ambitions. Civil Wars in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen has come with great power interest, and intervention, bringing them into potential conflict with regional players, and each other. The Iranian sabotage attacks and seizure of foreign-flagged tankers in international waters continues to threaten shipping and maritime security in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea. We could soon see United States, United Kingdom, India, Japan, South Korea, China and Russia sending warships to the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea to protect their own interests and poke each other in the eye. To counter-Iranian influence and strength we could yet see a nuclear-armed Sunni Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as the ultimate nuclear deterrent.
Furthermore, nuclear-armed Pakistan and India continue to threaten one another through small ‘fire fights’ and raids related to the disputed Kashmir. India’s ‘normalization’ of Jammu and Kashmir as an Indian state has instigated Pakistan into downgrading diplomatic relations, shutting down bi-lateral trade, and closing its air space to India. There is a general increase of fire across the line of control between India and Pakistan and the rival states seem to have increased their state of readiness.
Both countries’ military strategies are based on assumptions that box them in during times of conflict (like Germany did with the Schlieffen Plan in 1914), and set the stage for strategic miscalculation and nuclear war.
India’s strategy in the event of hostilities is rapid armored thrusts deep into Pakistan to hinder Pakistan from deploying its tactical nuclear forces against those mobile spearheads, while Pakistan’s strategy is to destroy the Indian troop concentrations near the Pakistani-India frontier with nuclear weapons, all the time threatening India cities with nuclear destruction. To defeat Indian armored attacks, Pakistan has forward-deployed tactical nuclear weapons and is believed to have greatly devolved decision-making down to lower level commanders, paving the way for miscalculation and disaster during a crisis.
China, for its part, has continued its bellicose behaviour with India over the Himalayas and increased its bully tactics with neighbours in the South China and East China Seas over islands and reefs under the control of others that Beijing sees as its own. Beijing’s recent White Paper National Defense in a New Era outlined its territorial ambitions in the South China, East China, Yellow Seas, and Taiwan, and warned regional powers (including the United States, South Korea, Japan and Australia) of its willingness to use force and use it first if its ambitions are threatened.
Furthermore, civil unrest and suppression of China’s Muslim Turkic population and democracy protestors in Hong Kong has China’s People’s Liberation Army on the verge of armed intervention in the former British Colony, and is a veiled warning to independence forces in Taiwan.
China’s Belt Road Initiative is little more than a pretext to deploy military forces to guard its interests along the route – with its new military base in Djibouti as the prime example. China’s sizeable investments and its buying up of debt in Pacific and Indian Ocean island nations and in Africa has served to open these vulnerable states up to Chinese overseas strategic basing of naval, sea and land forces.
A new, rumored, massive, secret Chinese sea and air base in Cambodia as a likely follow-on to Djibouti, and would serve as a further example of China’s ambitions as a rising superpower at the expense of Indian and United States security interests in the greater Indian Ocean area.
The United States must constantly now guard against Beijing’s attempts to further its interests and entry into South and Latin America, particularly as the value of the once powerful Monroe Doctrine appears almost forgotten in Washington.
Leftist Presidents in several Latin and South American states (including Brazil, Cuba, Argentina, Venezuela, Ecuador, Uruguay and Bolivia) have provided Beijing with a welcome audience interested in a more autonomous operational control of the Panama Canal, the remote space surveillance base in Argentina, and signals intelligence base in Lourdes, Cuba. In this climate, the danger posed by “Thucydides’ trap” in Sino-American relations must be carefully managed and more carefully avoided while still finding ways to push back on the bully in Beijing.
Lastly, the United States attempts to disarm North Korea’s nuclear program, and to curb the Hermit Kingdom’s aggressive and erratic behaviour, has either stalled or failed completely. North Korea has used the last two months to test-fire and make operational a nuclear-capable, road-mobile, solid fuel, Short Range Ballistic Missile (SRBM). This KN-23 is designed to defeat United States and South Korean air defences, including the recently deployed Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD).
Interestingly, the KN-23 SRBM is similar in size and dimensions, appearance and flightpath to the Russian SS-26 Iskander SRBM system, which raises further questions about foreign cooperation in Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs. Additionally, the North has unveiled a new Sinpo C-class conventional-powered submarine that can carry as many as three nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles as a survivable second leg of a nuclear strike force. The pending United States and South Korean joint war games are likely to further harden Kim Jong-un’s disposition to maintain his nuclear capabilities (if he ever intended to give them up in the first place), and will likely see North Korea ‘jump the shark’ by resuming tests of longer-range missiles such as Intermediate and Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles.
In the end, the world is an unstable and downright dangerous place for the United States and its military allies, and it is not getting any better (and appears to be getting worse in some cases). The hopes and dreams of a reinvigorated (or even moderately useful) international policing effort, in the form of the United Nations, has proven only marginally successful, and only when partnered with a regional security organization like NATO and to a lesser extent the African Union.
In this challenging strategic environment, military alliances should continue through international exercises. Global diplomacy could also be strengthened by engaging additional like-minded states before it is too late.
Although the United Kingdom peacefully passed the torch of leadership to the United States in 1945, any such transition between today’s superpowers will be based on war. The strategic rivalry between the U.S. and Russia and China continues.
President Trump’s hope for a potential strategic partner in Russia’s Vladimir Putin is not materializing as a hedge against China. While a strategic alliance between Russia and China is unlikely, it is a threat that cannot be easily ignored. They will almost certainly use each other to push back on the United States, and taking America head-on in a conflict. Likewise, the challenges posed by nuclear-armed North Korea and a soon-to-be nuclear-armed Iran are uncertain and very sadly here to stay.
Recent history has shown that dictatorships that destroy their weapons of mass destruction end up on the rubbish heap of history (and with their leaders dead), so the threats posed by North Korea and Iran will only get worse.
Another great power war is not necessarily inevitable – the conventional and/or hybrid warfare that led to Russia’s seizure of Crimea are more likely. The threat of nuclear war outside of an India-Pakistan conflict remains as remote as it was during the Cold War (buttressed by deterrence), however, with increased proliferation, unstable actors, and games of brinksmanship, comes the danger of strategic miscalculation on a grand scale.
There is always a place in global affairs and international politics for robust diplomacy, but there are no Ronald Reagans, Margaret Thatchers, or Mikhail Gorbachevs on the world stage at the moment, and hoping to find the leadership that rescued us from the doomsday scenario of the Cold War appears remote.
The most realistic way to ensure security, stability, and peace is through a strong military machine, nuclear deterrence, and the supremacy of a strong alliance system that ‘walks softly but carries a big stick’. It is time to prioritize strong global alliances with this goal in mind. In this era of challenges, the allies need their friends more than ever.
After retiring from the Canadian Armed Forces, Joe Varner has held many high-profile advisory positions, and consults on issues of defence diplomacy, strategic intelligence, military operations, and counter-terrorism.